It had been a decade since Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway, but all that ailed the great state of Alabama and the rest of Junior Nation has been cured with his win Sunday in the GEICO 500.
Walking around the infield, through the campground across from the speedway, or even driving down the country roads that surround the sports’ longest and fastest track, it is impossible to ignore how much Alabama ‘loves them some’ Dale Jr.
So, now that he has a win (which qualifies the No. 88 for the Chase) and has slain the demons that kept him from victory lane during the previous nine races of the season, he can focus on taking the next step in making sure all is right with the world – a Sprint Cup Series championship.
Face it, a championship by Earnhardt Jr. is a victory for everyone in the sport. He moves the needle in NASCAR and when he does well, we all do well. Tomorrow, the talk will be about how Earnhardt Jr. is on a roll. He WILL be the next champion. The radio talk shows will be blowing up with callers all but demanding he be given the trophy now. Why wait? It’s a given.
But he is just one of eight drivers currently qualified for NASCAR’s postseason. Surely defending champion Kevin Harvick and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson aren’t ready to roll over. No, I didn’t think so.
In fact, Johnson said during his post-race press conference, “If he (Ryan Blaney) pulled down and the [No.] 11 (Denny Hamlin) pulled down, I was pulling down. To hell with the [No.] 88, I want to win a race.”
Can you imagine the reaction had Johnson done that? Despite what Earnhardt Jr. himself thinks, Earnhardt’s fans believe Johnson owes him for a number of race wins where Johnson was pushed to the win. Maybe Earnhardt Jr. pushed Johnson to the win because his car wasn’t fast enough to get to the lead. Isn’t finishing second better than dropping to the back of the pack because a driver is hung out trying to make a pass?
The reason our fans are called fans is because they are fanatic about racing and, more specifically, their chosen driver. You don’t have to love the Chase to admit that it works and something tells me that millions of fans will suddenly jump on board if Earnhardt Jr. is one of the drivers battling it out in for the title in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Last week, fans criticized the Chase format in their comments for this column, but NASCAR has done something right. The Chase format worked last year. It provided some of the best action the sport has seen in years and the TV numbers prove it. Was it perfect? No. It’s a safe bet that nothing will ever be perfect in this sport, or any other for that matter. Fans are going to complain because that is what fans do.
Go ahead and prove me wrong, but things are shaping up to be pretty exciting when the Chase kicks off in about three more months. As for now, the folks in Alabama and the rest of Junior Nation can rest easy. He’s in the Chase.